You’d be forgiven for thinking the Croke Cup had become exclusive to Leinster and Munster schools.
Ulster’s top nurseries, for the time being, cannot contend for the most coveted piece of silverware in schools hurling owing to a decision from a couple of years ago that the provincial champions up north would progress to the knockout stages of the All-Ireland senior B competition (Paddy Buggy Cup).
As for those out west, well, they simply haven’t been good enough when pitted against the champions and runners-up from either Leinster or Munster.
Presentation College, Athenry bucked this trend when successfully overturning a 10-point interval deficit in their semi-final against Kilkenny CBS. Their involvement in this evening’s decider (Thurles, 5pm), against St Kieran’s College, bridges a 14-year gap to the last occasion a Galway school (St Raphael’s, Loughrea) appeared in the final.
Indeed, St Raphael’s remain the sole Galway school to have annexed the Croke Cup. That victory, at the expense of Midleton CBS, came in the spring of 1995.
You’d have to go all the way back to 1976 to find the one other time Presentation Athenry reached the concluding afternoon of fare. And in the intervening 42 years, only six finals have involved a Galway side.
Now, compare this with St Kierans’ record during the same period; 22 final appearances, 14 wins. Today’s fixture is their fifth consecutive final appearance, with Our Lady’s Templemore having denied them a first four-in-a-row of titles 12 months ago. Last year’s class was particularly young, mind, with 10 of that team to line out here.
“The one thing about St Kieran’s is that they are consistently there.”
Presentation Athenry manager Mike Finn begins: “There is a reason they have won as much as they have. If you get to a final, you want to be playing against St Kieran’s. They are the college you measure yourself against.
“On our side, there is a bit of a novelty about being in the final. We have won Connacht nine times, but this is only our second time to get this far. It is the first time in living memory that Pres have made the final.”
Why Galway’s leading nurseries have consistently failed to impose themselves outside of Connacht, particularly when you consider the county’s success rate at minor level, is a question that continues to puzzle Finn.
“Here in Galway, we have a relatively small community of hurling colleges, the likes of St Brigid’s and St Raphael’s in Loughrea, ourselves and Gort Community School. We all know each other well and we’d often talk about why haven’t one of us made the breakthrough. There just hasn’t been any Galway representation at this stage of the competition for so long. 1995 was the last time a team from Galway won it outright. It is well overdue.”
Given this Athenry team has been the one to make the breakthrough, it is somewhat strange to find it contains only two players who featured during Galway’s All-Ireland minor final win last September. Centre-back Conor Walsh of Turloughmore was a key figure for the county minors in 2017, while corner-forward Mark Kennedy was introduced as a sub during the final win over Cork.
“There is a real solid group,” Finn continues. “There is no one player you are relying on to lead you through games (they had seven scorers against Kilkenny CBS last time out). So, there are loads of guys there who are all able to contribute. There are no passengers and we have three or four good lads on the line who are making the county minor (U17) panel. So, we have depth in the squad as well.”
The school, in which former Galway hurler Cathal Moore is principal, has won five Connacht crowns since 2010 but repeatedly been tripped up by Kilkenny outfits thereafter, including St Kieran’s at the semi-final stage in 2015.
“We are trying to build ourselves up and make ourselves the dominant school in Connacht. We are slowly but surely getting there. We’ve been impressive all year and are moving well. We have a good set of forwards. If they get on top, they can score fairly heavily. We are going to Thurles on Saturday and we feel if we put our best foot forward that we have a right good shout of pulling it off.”
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